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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Maid' Finds Bolshoi Limits




Once again, Ivan the Terrible has come to the stage of the Bolshoi Theater. This season, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Maid of Pskov" joins the theater's "The Tsar's Bride," also by Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky's "Oprichnik" - all three depict episodes from Tsar Ivan's cruel, colorful reign.


The premiere of the Bolshoi's new staging of "The Maid" in mid-December also marked the return to the theater, after a decade's absence, of its long-time conductor, who briefly served as chief conductor, Yevgeny Svetlanov.


Some 35 years ago, the very same opera served as the vehicle for Svetlanov's Bolshoi debut. "I was 27 when I started my career at the Bolshoi," said the conductor. "Now, I am over 70 and here I am, back again, with 'The Maid,' And in between lies a whole life. It was my idea to cast a musical arch. Beginning. End. A law against which we are all helpless."


Apparently, Svetlanov also wanted a production of the opera reminiscent of the one he led at his debut. And that he has certainly got - with decor, costumes and stage direction if not copied from the Stalin era, at least thoroughly in keeping with its artistic tastes and practices.


"The Maid" was the first of Rimsky-Korsakov's 15 operas and had its premiere in 1873 at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Set in the city of its title at a time of rebellion against the oppressive rule of Ivan the Terrible, sometimes known as Ivan Grozny, the opera centers around Olga, an illegitimate daughter of the tsar who is caught up in the battle between her father and the rebels, whose leader also happens to be her lover.


Over the quarter of a century following its premiere, Rimsky-Korsakov revised "The Maid" three times, finally adding a one-act prologue, separately known as "Vera Sheloga." All of the opera's three previous Bolshoi productions, in 1901 (with the great bass Fyodor Chaliapin playing Ivan the Terrible), 1932 and 1971, included "Vera Sheloga." This year, the theater has gone back to the composer's penultimate version, which contains only the opera's original three acts.


Like all of Rimsky-Korsakov's operas, "The Maid" contains some incredibly beautiful music, much of it taken from actual Russian folk tunes. The final scene of mourning at the death of Olga is especially stunning.


Svetlanov, of course, is a masterful conductor, probably the finest among the current Russian practitioners of the art. Not surprisingly, he gave "The Maid" a superb reading, drawing unusually fine playing from the orchestra, full-throated singing from the chorus and at least accuracy from the principal singers. Unfortunately, because of his many other commitments, most of them abroad, Svetlanov's direction of "The Maid" apparently will not extend beyond the initial run of performances given last month.


The one outstanding solo performance at the premiere came from a visitor, the bass Leonid Zimnenko, borrowed from the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater and cast as Olga's supposed, but not actual father. None of the Bolshoi regulars cast in the other roles came close to matching him, either in depth of characterization or beauty of voice, although Maria Gavrilova, who played Olga, did have some touching moments.


Designer Sergei Barkhin provided "The Maid" with massive story-book sets, which, judging from archival photographs, were basically of the same sort seen in the Bolshoi's three earlier productions. The action of the principals, as so often at the Bolshoi, seemed drawn from the world of silent films.


"The Maid" certainly deserves a place in the Bolshoi's repertoire, to be seen and heard by all who really care about Russian opera. Too bad the Bolshoi hasn't the imagination or the singers to do the opera full justice.


"The Maid of Pskov" (Pskovityanka) will be performed at the Bolshoi Theater (1 Teatralnaya Ploshchad. Metro Teatralnaya. Tel. 292-9986) Jan. 27 and Feb. 10 and 15 at 7 p.m.